It is during the great depression in the US, and the land is full of people who are now homeless. Those people, commonly called "hobos", are truly hated by Shack (Borgnine), a sadistical railway conductor who swore that no hobo will ride his train for free. Well, no-one but "A" Number One (Lee Marvin), who is ready to put his life at stake to become a local legend - as the first person who survived the trip on Shack's notorious train.Written by
Brian Peterson firstname.lastname@example.org
For you teenagers out there, or parents of teenagers who have expressed a desire to run away from home and ride the rails, this movie is the perfect antidote. Anyone who sees this film you will never even consider hopping on a boxcar again. Directed by Robert Aldrich, and bearing his unmistakable anarchist's stamp, it tells the story of two hoboes, one, A-1, played by Lee Marvin, a seasoned, lone wolf, and the other, Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young boaster who tags along for the rides, and forever tries to convince his friend and mentor that he is in the same league with him in the art of hobodom, and maybe even better. The story revolves around the attempt of both men to ride the Number 19, a train lorded over by vicious railroadman Shack (Ernest Borgnine), who is known for despising hoboes, and for attacking them with hammer and chains! Director Robert Aldrich works wonders with this tall tale, some of it based on true stories. His fondness for improbable material is evident here, as once again he shows himself fascinated by the seemingly impossible task. Aldrich has a real feeling for what one might call WASP schmaltz, and he pours it on like ketchup on a Big Mac. He obviously loves railraods, old railroad uniforms, tramps, the Pacific Northwest, junkyards and the great outdoors generally, all copiously present here, aided in no small measure by Joe Biroc's lyrical photography.
The Emperor Of the North Pole is more character study than story. Marvin's character of A-1 is independent, shrewd and ethically minded, with a great sense of style. For him, being a hobo is almost a calling, and his acceptance by his fellow tramps constitutes a kind of knighthood, a status he guards jeaously. His opposite number, Shack, is a sadistic company man who relishes lording over others with a big stick, sometimes literally. To call him a type A personality would be a gross understatement. Unlike A-1, Shack has no sense of style; indeed, he doesn't even seem to own his personality. The railroad does. Cigaret is a kid, with a big ego and even bigger mouth who loves to tell stories about his exploits, none of them true. He fools no one, least of all A-1, who tries to teach him a thing or two, with only middling success. The clashing of these three personalities constitutes the bulk of the film, and is basically what it is about.
I sense that Aldrich, and screenwriter Christopher Knopf, were aiming for a larger than life effect, and that they were trying to create a sort of Great American Myth, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. They only partially succeed at this. Though Knopf's dialogue is at times excellent, the movie's realism works against its mythic qualities, and there's too much swearing. There's too much of a weary, real life-battered aspect to the characters for them to rise to iconic stature. Also, Cigaret's volubility is often obnoxious, and he seems to be saying the same things, again and again; and though Carradine plays him well enough, he comes across as too middle class and at times too delicate for the role. The action scenes on the other hand, are brilliantly done, and the climactic fight at the end is well worth the wait.
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